If you're socially introverted like me, you probably find the thought of approaching a stranger for a portrait in everyday situations downright nauseating. What if they say no? What if they think you’re creepy? What if they are rude and tell you to get lost? These are the thoughts people struggle with at the very thought of approaching someone they don’t know to photograph them. These thoughts often keep many photographers from taking some of the best and most interesting portraits of their lives.
A few weeks ago I was teaching a class at Shutterfest in St. Louis and stayed back afterwards to speak to some of the students. Moments later a man and his wife walked by browsing the many sights of Union Station and caught my eye. I’ve been working on a series of portraits photographing men with great beards, and he was a prime candidate. As he stood there conversing with his wife I contemplated a strategy to approach him and ask to take his portrait. After all, I just finished teaching a class and had all of my studio gear all set up ready to go. I walked up to them, politely introduced myself and apologized for the intrusion, then proceeded to ask to take his portrait. After a little encouragement from his wife he agreed and allowed me to shoot one of my “Dramatic Portraits,” a series of shots taken with studio lighting at wide-open apertures. The entire “shoot” from the time I approached them to the last frame taken was maybe 5 minutes, but I ended up walking away from it with a great portrait and an even better learning experience.
Here are some tips I have picked up over the years that will help you approach strangers and photograph them successfully.
Have A Plan Before Approaching Someone
Before walking up to someone to ask to take their photo be sure to have everything ready to go. This means having your preferred camera body, lens, reflector, lighting, etc set up and ready to shoot in the event they agree. Approaching someone and then fumbling to get everything together will end up making you look unskilled and will most likely yield a sub-par portrait. Also, be sure to have a concept in mind for the types of expressions you’re aiming for, and communicate these ideas from start to finish.
Be Polite and Smile!
When approaching a stranger nothing is more disarming than a smile. When I’m walking up to someone in public I always make eye contact, smile, and politely introduce myself. For example, when I approached the gentleman in the photos above I simply said the following;
“Hi! I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Miguel. I’m doing a series of portraits of men with awesome beards and I would love to take your portrait! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes. Would that be okay?”
Being extra polite will increase the likelihood that they will say yes. Once they do be respectful of their time and take your photos as quickly as possible so they can go on with their day. Always be sure to thank them for their time and remember to exchange emails or other contact details so you can deliver the photos once they are ready.
Be Aware of Their Situation
Be courteous and respectful of people and don’t approach them at inopportune times. For example, if you see someone with an interesting look that you want to photograph, but you see they are carrying groceries, having a conversation on the phone, or some other situation where they are clearly occupied, don’t interrupt! This might seem like common sense but far too often I see people approach strangers for various reasons when they are busy and are usually turned away. Timing is just as important as every other step in this process and can’t be overlooked.
Be Confident, Even If You’re Scared to Death
Let’s use our imagination for a moment. Imagine you’re sitting in a hospital room waiting to be treated for a wound. The doctor frantically enters the room, drops your medical records folder, and then loses their glasses as they bend down to pick everything up. At this moment I’m sure your anxiety levels are through the roof. You begin second guessing this person’s ability to help you, and they have a huge climb to restore order and confidence in their ability to patch you up. In contrast, if that same doctor had walked in confidently and told you that the procedure would be simple and painless, you would probably be more calm and willing to let them do whatever they thought was necessary to help. The same holds true for us as photographers. Be confident (not arrogant) that they are in good hands and that you’ll quickly get the photo you’re looking to take. Keep any anxiety or fears on the inside and as the old saying goes, “fake it until you make it.”
Always Be Prepared
One of the things you can do to increase your confidence in these situations is to make a habit of bringing the right camera/lens choices for shooting the types of portraits you like. For me this means bringing along a good 85mm lens with me, as it suits my style of tightly composed portraiture. If shooting wide, environmental style portraits is more your thing, maybe bringing along a 35mm might be better. My everyday walk-around kit usually consists of a lightweight body like the Sony A7RII or Sony A6300 paired with one of Tamron’s SP line of lenses like the 35mm & 85mm 1.8 lenses. Again, whatever your portrait style dictates, bring the gear that you’re most comfortable with and make it happen!
Challenge Yourself Every Day
Many of us have the opportunity every day to go out into the world and interact with strangers, so use that to your advantage and try to take a portrait every day. I treat it almost like playing a video game. Each day I try to get a “high score” and every day that follows I set out to beat that score. Whether that means taking more portraits, or increasing the quality of the shots taken, I try to make a concerted effort to engage in this practice as much as possible. You’ll find in the beginning that it may be terrifying, but the more you do it you’ll get to the point to where you can approach anyone, just about anywhere, and successfully take photos.
These are some of my time tested techniques that I'm confident will increase your success rate when approaching strangers to take their portraits. What are some ways you've found that work for you? What are some headaches or roadblocks you've run into? Leave your comments below and I'll try and address the best ones in a future episode of "These Guys I Know"!